An aboriginal veteran of the First World War will be honoured with a bronze statue in his home town of Parry Sound, Ontario. Francis Pegahmagabow is not merely an aboriginal veteran, but is Canada’s most decorated aboriginal veteran.
Having worked at the Parry Sound museum and studied Pegahmagabow, it fills me with pleasure that, over a century after he served in the war, he will finally receive prominent, well-deserved recognition. A life-size bronze statue will be erected in the town of Parry Sound. There is also talk of creating a promotional video about this unsung hero that will touch on other Aboriginal Veterans.
Deemed by some recruiters as “A White Man’s War,” many Aboriginal Canadians, who sought to enlist for military service in order to prove their loyalty to King and Country, were turned away at the recruiting station. According to Adrian Hayes, author of Pegahmagabow’s biography, Pegahmagabow was one of the few men who managed to volunteer before the edict prohibiting the recruitment of anyone who was not white arose. This flies in the face of a statement made by MP Bob Zimmer back in June. He acknowledged that our armed forces were enriched by the presence of aboriginals and, in every major conflict Canada has been involved in, they came forward to do their service to the country. In Zimmer’s words, aboriginals “proudly came forward to do their part for this land our home.” Sadly, in WWI, while aboriginal men came forward, sometimes travelling hundreds of miles through the wilderness to get to a recruiting station, they were turned away. Our country did not want them as citizens or soldiers at the time. Men like Pegahmagabow come forward to try to prove that they could be both.
Having been trained as a hunter from a young age, Pegahmagabow was a formidable sniper. He killed 375 Germans and kidnapped a few others during his time in the trenches and, for his success and his bravery in the line of fire, was awarded the Military Medal and two bars. It would be fair to consider him the aboriginal equivalent of Billy Bishop, minus the flying, the Victoria Cross, the plays, the books, and the movies about him. The two bars is something fewer than 40 Canadians from this era can claim. Pegahmagabow spent most of the war on the front lines and was only invalided out during the last few months. He was even was presented to King George V—you know, the British guy who was our King at the time, and whose predecessors had signed all those lovely treaties with the First Nations.
Upon his return to Canada, despite his status as a hero, Pegahmagabow was treated as any other aboriginal. He was elected to lead his First Nation, and regularly tried to communicate their concerns—and the concerns of other First Nations groups—to Ottawa (although he rarely succeeded). Descriptions of him among white-aboriginal discourse varied, mostly because, as Chief of his First Nation and leader of early national First Nations groups in the 1940’s, he made enemies not only from other reserves but also from the Indian Agents who maintained it was a conflict of interest. With the exception of a 95 page biography and a brief mention in a historical documentary on Parry Sound and the surrounding area, little has been done to remember him.
The move to honour the veteran has been commended by Hayes, the town of Parry Sound, and, of course, Pegahmagabow’s family, most of whom still live on the reserve on Parry Island. Thereasa MacInnes, Pegahmagabow’s granddaughter, explained how important this gesture is for their family. Pity it couldn’t have come sooner.
The statue will be located in the town of Parry Sound, which is located on the mainland and pegged as Pegahmagabow’s “home town.” Home town in the sense that the land used to belong to his ancestors until the white pine forests of Georgian Bay and Muskoka become attractively lucrative. Where Pegahmagabow actually grew up was the reserve on Parry Island (or the Wasauksing First Nation), which was “leased” (that is, expropriated) from the aboriginals for a century under a legislation that allowed the expropriation of Indian lands for railway purposes. The lease has expired and the Island is now closed to visitors unless they have permission and a pass from the Band Council. While it might be more appropriate to build the statue on Parry Island, those who would see it already know his story.
It’s non-Aboriginal Canadians who are ignorant and need to be educated. Francis Pegahmagabow served our country, and yet, after his initial triumph in warfare, he was forgotten. He should be remembered as one of our First World War Heroes, along with Billy Bishop. Yet he hasn’t been over the past century. How shameful was it that, several months ago when Bob Zimmer made his commendation for aboriginal veterans in the House of Commons, he couldn’t name a single one—let alone Canada’s most decorated. We should have been educated about minority heroes like Francis Pegahmagabow a long time ago.